Buckner’s Surrounded (Album Review)

Buckner has perfected a shaken rosebush sound–all at once moving, woody, thorny, and petaled in difficult beauty.  His album, Surrounded, attests to his remarkable virtues as a singer-songwriter.  But his virtues are not easy to appreciate; he offers no ease of access to them. The melodies of the songs on the album are lovely, but they exist more as traceries than as simple single lines, they are densely structured and closely knit–there are few big, dramatic chord changes, few reaches for the immediate, call it the hummable.  You might deem the melodies ruminative–but that should not suggest the bucolic or the pastoral:  they are fiercely ruminative, the rumination determined not to spare the ruminator or the ruminated topic or the listener–intense, brooding ruminations.


Perhaps the best way to understand the difficulty of Buckner is to consider the writing process that produced the songs on the album.  The nine songs are built from the text of five prose vignettes.  (The album liner supplies these.)  The vignettes are numbered, and their text looks a little like the text of old New Testaments–some of the words are in black, the words that become lyrics of the songs, and other are in read, the words that are part of the vignettes but not themselves lyrics of the songs.  There are also words in green bold face, the words that serve as the titles of the songs.  So each song is a complicated distillation of a vignette or of some portion of a vignette.  For illustration, the opening section of the first vignette is:

[Those static arrangements have led you to attempt a rest, but] you just won’t lie down.  Even closing your eyes, you can’t let it go, surrounded inside.

The words in brackets are the words printed in red.  The other words are the opening lyrics of the first song, “Surrounded”, whose title is the bold-faced word.  The vignette continues:

Leave it alone.  You don’t get it back [by] undoing the scenes [that] you can’t explain, whatever [it is that] you dream that you’ve buried away.

It seems like you’re there as someone removed [of the proof, then returned to the pride] and [abandoned with others] left in their place with nothing to do, [still] bound to the switch.  [But], railing again at the thought of the fight for well-earned dissent (undeserved at the time, as you’ve been shown), the motion has gone a shade of the night, only leading you on.

Before I say much more about the process of building songs this way, it is worth pausing to consider the vignette itself, independent of the song that Buckner scries within it.  Anyone who knows Bucker’s recording history and who has reflected on the character of his lyrics, knows that they are elliptical exercises, worse even than the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi.  Buckner does not speak but conceals, gives signs, hints, suggestions.  But he won’t come clean.  Early songs were built around an implied but never actually used word (“Blue and Wonder”):

And what’s that word:
I forget sometimes
It’s the one that means
The love has left your eyes?

Bucker never actually supplies that word.  He leaves the reader wondering (perhaps a deliberate pun in the title of the song), since there is not a single English word with that exact meaning, or none I can think of.  (Maybe I have forgotten it too?)  Part of the artistry here is that by claiming that there is such a word but that he has forgotten it, Buckner supplies that sense of familiarity with everyday tragedies that we all have, even if we would like to forget it.  But Buckner always cares more to bring us around to a cold plunge into a familiar but uncomfortable reality than about telling us about such realities. That continues here:  this vignette never really tells us, in so many words, about what surrounds the narrator–it instead surrounds us itself, won’t let us rest.  What does it mean?  Something has been done, something undone, something buried, something dissented from.  But what?  Several of the sentences have a murky grammatical structure, stringing the reader from word to word without the benefit of creating any clear lexical expectation.  You find yourself at the period, stopping. but only then, if at all, having any sense of where you have been.  This is clearly deliberate–not a failure, but a success of art.  It bears comparisons with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and with, say, Claire Lispector.

The hollow at the heart of the vignette deepens in the song Buckner finds in the vignette.  (The relationship between the generating vignettes and the generated songs varies in each case.  “Surrounded” is perhaps the song that most fully preserves its generating vignette.)  Consider the lyrics.

You just won’t lie down
Even closing your eyes
You can’t let it go
Surrounded inside

Leave it alone
You don’t get it back
Undoing the scenes
You can’t get explain
Whatever you dream

That you buried away
It seems like you’re there
As someone removed
And left in their place
With nothing to do

Bound to the switch
Railing again
At the thought of the fight
For well-earned dissent
Undeserved at the time

As you’ve been shown
The motion has gone
A shade of the night
Only leading you on

There is no straightforward verse/chorus structure here exactly.  There are no rhymes.  But it is far from formless.  The words ingather around whatever it is that is missing from the lyrics, some skeleton key word or phrase that would allow escape.  The words create claustrophobia, crowd densely around.  No escape offered, the lyrics end in stasis, the only hope (?) a shade of the night–a grayer black, a ghost? both?–that offers to lead you–only you?–on.  But is that an offer of anything more than empty change?Substituting one siege for another?  Railing, fighting, dissenting get us nothing deserved.

Buckner finger-picks insistently, weaving the lyrics through the pattern.  His vocal expression gives little away–the words matter, the delivery is not inflectionless.  But the singing reveals mainly the intensity of the self-questioning, of the restlessness of the desire for explanation, the restlessness full stop.

Perhaps nothing more thematizes this song, this album, and Buckner’s career, than his grappling with a wide-eyed sleeplessness, physical and psychological.  In Emerson’s essay, “Experience”, Emerson bemoans not just the death of his son, Waldo, but also, and even more intently, he bemoans the fact that he cannot fully realize Waldo’s death, concretize it into a current circumstance of his life.  He writes

In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, –no more.  I cannot get it nearer to me…[I]t does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off and leaves no scar.  It was caducous.  I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Buckner lives out a kind of nepsis; he paces the walls while the rest of us sleep.  He spends his nights inquiring up and down, tiring his animal eyes and the eyes of his mind.  But he cannot sleep.  He cannot bring the things that move him–those that calm him, those that grieve him, those he has loved and those he has lost, –he cannot bring them nearer to him.  They have done what they have done and he and they have moved on, no lesson surely learnt.  Everything touches him but nothing touches him:  everything slides away, led on by a shade of the night.  Life itself proves caducous.  Dream delivers him to dream, and there is no end to illusion.  –How can we hold onto lives that flux like water, running out of our clutches, leaving behind only trails of tears?  How can we step into real nature–not just as observers, pacers of the wall, but as bodily entrants into reality itself?  Our skin seems sometimes to get in between us and the world, making our grasp of things gloved, mediated, distant.  Sleep comes to seem like an acceptance, a yielding to dreams, a conniving at agreeable illusions.  Buckner will not yield.  He remains awake in the inextricable darkness.

The sheer intensity of Buckner’s refusal of sleep can overwhelm the listener.  Buckner is determined to exhaust exhaustion.  He is bound to the switch.  How can art arrest life, incarcerate it? That is a question that will keep you up nights.  Perhaps there is a confusion in it, as perhaps there is a confusion in Emerson’s grievance about grief–but, even if there is, it is a confusion we all find ourselves in eventually.  What we want nearer we can get only so near, and no more.  Nothing we care about seems capable of being both ours and other.  Everything eventually sees or saws, settling in one place or another, wholly ours and so not of interest, or wholly other and so out of reach.

Buckner always brings Emerson to mind for me.  That is because each man devotes himself to what I call, if you will excuse the term, a phenomenology of moods.  Each is more interested in finding a way to capture a mood than he is in capturing the object or scene or whatever it might be that creates the mood.  (One of the songs on Surrounded is, fittingly, “Mood”.)  Each takes mood itself to be his ‘object’.  This, I take it, helps to explain what I have called the hollowness of the lyrics, the fact that something seems always to be left out, left up to us to supply, if it is supplied at all.  –The fascination with mood has developed over Buckner’s career.  You find it on early albums, but usually as a bit or a piece of a song, not as the song itself.  As he has continued to record, the fascination has deepened.  Now, the songs are often fogs of mood, obscuring all non-moody objects, and leaving us with only the fog itself as a subject of attention.  No doubt to some this seems like willful obscurantism–but that is true only of those who cannot bring themselves to focus on the fog, to see that it is worthy of attention, despite its shifty, ephemeral nature, despite the fact that it seems always to recede just as we lean in to study it.

Buckner’s problem (and, so, not his willful obscurity) is how to bring into focus the very stuff that we take to soften or blur our focus, to hinder our gaze.  The things it is hard to see from up close, because they are often best visible in the distance.  (Emerson has his own version of this problem.)  I suspect that Buckner’s method of composition, the creating of the vignette, then the subtracting from it until the lyric emerges, is itself driven by his problem.  The vignette captures the mood, but does so in a way that threatens to solidify it, to make it too object-like.  Subtracting to find the lyric de-objectifies the mood, as does adding the music, the melody.  Buckner captures the mood by capturing us in it, by getting us to find ourselves inside it, instead of standing over and above it, outside it.  We come to know the fog by learning how to see it, and to see in it, as best we can.  Buckner’s pursuit of mood creates the strange mix of determinacy and indeterminacy in his lyrics, the combining of sketchy personal presences with carefully delineated emotional detail.  The songs are scenescapes of free-floating emotional disturbances.

“Surrounded” is one of the best of the songs on the album; but there are no weak songs.  There are deeply lovely songs, like the unanswered mystery of “Beautiful Question”.  There’s the trembling demon seance of “Mood”.  The album ends with a transcendental take on a symbol of the temporary, “Lean-To”.

Buckner is a songwriter of real brilliance.  His songs are exercises of that brilliance, a force creating its appropriate expression.  These are not songs that wear what makes them so wonderful on their sleeves.  They require time, frequentation, serious thinking.  Thoreau once remarked that books must be read as deliberately as they are written.  These songs must be listened to as deliberately as they were composed.  Buckner wears himself out.  He wears his listener out.  And that, odd as it may be to put it this way, is part of the point:  what Buckner is doing is demanding.

Whistling for Your Thoughts: Thoreau (Walden Chapter 12)

Let me see; where was I? Methinks I was nearly in this frame of mind; the world lay about at this angle. Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing? If I should soon bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life. I fear my thoughts will not come back to me. If it would do any good, I would whistle for them. When they make us an offer, is it wise to say, We will think of it? My thoughts have left no track, and I cannot find the path again. What was it that I was thinking of? It was a very hazy day.  I will just try these three sentences of Confutsee; they may fetch that state about again. I know not whether it was the dumps or a budding ecstasy. Mem. There never is but one opportunity of a kind.

The Spirit That is in the Air (Thoreau)

A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air.  It has new life and motion. It is intermediate between land and sky.  On land, only the grass and trees wave, but water itself is rippled by the wind.  I see the breeze dash across it in streaks and flecks of light.  It is somewhat singular that we should look down on the surface of water.  We shall look down on the surface of air next, and mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it.


Minding Your Business While Writing (Thoreau)


The forcible writer does not go far for his themes. His ideas are not far-fetched.  He derives inspiration from his chagrins and satisfactions.  His theme being ever an instant one, his own gravity assists him, gives impetus to what he says.  He minds his business.  He does not speculate while others drudge for him.

Abbot Theodore and Thoreau

Another brother asked the same elder, Abbot Theodore, and began to question him and to inquire about things he had never yet put into practice himself.  The elder said to him:  As yet you have not found a ship, and you have not put your baggage aboard, and you have not started to cross the sea:  can you talk as if you had already arrived in that city to which you planned to go?  When you have put into practice the things you are talking about, then speak from knowledge of the thing itself!

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

Thoreau as Philosopher

Below is the Prefatory Statement I wrote for an issue of Reason Papers devoted to Thoreau that I edited back in the 90’s.  Ed Mooney’s recent blog entries on Thoreau have me thinking about Thoreau again.

Thoreau as philosopher: Why does this theme still seem a bit strange, a bit forced – like
an attempt to fob off something phoney on us? Well, one problem is that most of us
met Thoreau too early. We met him in adolescence, and we thought of him then as a quirky nature prose-poet; or, as a rustic rebel whose name connected up vaguely with peaceful political protest. Did we think of Thoreau as a philosopher? – No; we poeticized him; we rusticated him. How, then, to reclaim him?

At a time when philosophy is increasingly professionalized, Thoreau is worth reading
because he reminds us of the distinction – and of the relationship – between philosophy
professed and philosophy lived. Like the Greeks, Thoreau heard philosophy’s call, heard
philosophy call for a life, heard philosophy call for professing – in Thoreau’s case, for
writing. What Thoreau understood was that the authority of philosophical writing must
always be won anew, word by word, inkling by inkling. The authority of philosophical
writing is won anew not by displays of virtuosity, whether literary or argumentative, but
by displays of vitality, by finding words that incorporate, and are incorporated by, a
well-lived life. Philosophically authoritative words are words that stand face-to-face with
a well-lived life; such words and such a life reciprocally implicate one another. Thoreau
demonstrates his understanding of this by writing in the first-person and by providing
what he demands from others – “a simple and sincere account of his own life.” Clearly,
this understanding of philosophical authority is dangerous – by that I mean, has its dangers: empty self-obsession, stultifying idiosyncracy, blank unintelligibility. But perhaps worse than these dangers is the danger that such an understanding of philosophical writing renders philosophy written in its service unavailable to contemporary professional philosophy. Put crudely, the danger is that philosophy written in the service of such an understanding and contemporary professional philosophy will end up out of even spitting distance of one another. To contemporary professional philosophy, Thoreau’s writing is writing ad hominem, or worse, writing ad personam: philosophical writing conceived in a matrix of fallacies, not to be borne. If philosophy as Thoreau writes it and contemporary professional philosophy continue to recoil from each other, philosophy will lose much of what has made it admirable – its stubborn efforts to make ends meet, to keep body and soul together. Philosophy will then exist only as a zombie, or as a ghost, of its former self, demanding either voodoo or exorcism.

Thoreau’s philosophical writing alternately provokes and pacifies. It knots together
paradox and platitude. Thoreau does not write books to be held at arm’s length; he writes
books to be either pitched angrily or clutched greedily; or, maybe, both. Thoreau gives
and requires a live response, the response of a life. Call this Thoreau’s Concordian
Revolution: Copernicus taught us that our sun with all its furies is at the center of the
galaxy; Kant taught us that our mind with all its categories is at the center of space and
time; Thoreau teaches us that our life with all its forms is at the center of things. Kant set
reason after reason, because reason is fated to ask itself questions that it cannot answer.
Thoreau set life after life, because life is fated to ask itself questions it cannot answer.
Reason and life are alike antinomian: both require transcendental responses. Thoreau
requires that we read him against our lives, and through our lives.

Before clearing the way for the essays that follow, I acknowledge the overwhelming
debt this collection owes to the pioneering work of Stanley Cavell. I also record my
sadness, and the sadness of others, at the death of David L. Norton. Had David lived, he
would have contributed an essay to this collection. If time is, as Thoreau said, “a stream
we go a-fishing in,” David was the Compleat Angler.

Auburn, Alabama

George Schrader Channels Thoreau

Today’s been a reading day for me.  I am preparing to begin summer classes; I am teaching a course on The Seven Deadly Sins.  I happened upon a paper by George Schrader, a philosopher whose work I always find admirable, called “Monetary Value and Personal Value”.  It ends thus:

The problem for contemporary man is, I believe, to free himself sufficiently from the tyrannical dominance of monetary value to be able to judge in his own terms what things are worth to him as an individual with his own needs and purposes.  To do this, he must programatically turn aside from the prima facia monetary value of his own needs, his labor, and the goods he confronts and look toward that dimension of himself and his world which stands in contrast to the entire domain of monetary value. He must ask such simple questions as:  Do I really care that my clothes should be so white? Do I really wish to look so pretty? What do I really care about, and what will in fact and not simply in representation answer to that concern?  Only by insisting on asking such questions can he avoid having all of his values decided for him.  And only thus can he have his own world.

Of course the texture of the prose here is not Thoreauvian (except, perhaps, for the questions)–but the thought, well, it sure sounds like the “Economy” chapter of Walden.

%d bloggers like this: